2 Chronicles 14-16: The Rise and Fall of King Asa

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Asa gets only a fairly small section in Kings (1 Kgs 15:9-24) in which he does some religious purification, deposes the queen mother, but falls short of clearing out the high places. Despite this one little flaw, he was a true faithful throughout his whole life and brought many treasures to the Temple, then took a fair number right back out again to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into turning against his alliance with Israel. In his old age, however, he was plagued by a disease of the feet.

2 Chronicles 14-16 follows much the same plotline, but much bloated, and includes some interesting differences.

Enter Ethiopia

When Asa took the throne, we learn that he saw peace for ten years, during which he was well regarded by God, largely because of his religious intolerance. He destroyed the foreign altars and high places, broke down the pillars and Asherim, and commanded Judah to seek God and keep the commandments. He also, as it happens, built up Judah’s fortifications, raised an army of 300,000 spearmen from Judah and 280.000 archers from Benjamin, and the land prospered under his rule.

Unique to the Chronicler, we find another battle story bordering on moral tale, like the battle against Israel in 2 Chron. 13. This time, Judah fights Zerah, an Ethiopian. According to my study Bible, no such king is known outside of this passage. However, it seems that there is some evidence (including the mention of camels we will come to shortly) that suggest that Zerah may have been an Arabian king, rather than an Ethiopian one.

Zerah attacks Judah with an army of a million men and 300 chariots, making it as far as Mareshah. He is met there, at the valley of Zephathah, by Asa’s army. Asa cried out to God for help, goading him, making the conflict out to be one of the powers of man against the powers of God (2 Chron. 14:11). Yet this doesn’t seem to bother God, who hands Asa victory.

The Judahites pursue the Ethiopians as far as Gerar, in Philistine story, until there are no Ethiopians left. With the conflict over, the Judahites take to looting – plundering the cities around Gerar before destroying them, and even destroying the tents of the nomadic herders in the area, carrying away sheep, camels, and much booty. The Chronicler tells us that they did this “for the fear of the Lord was upon them” (2 Chron. 14:14), though it seems rather opportunistic. Some commentators try to excuse Asa’s actions by claiming that the Philistines had been working with the Ethiopians, though there doesn’t seem to be anything in the text to suggest this.

Further Cleansing

Asa’s religious persecutions weren’t quite done (or, perhaps, are re-narrated).

Asa encountered a prophet by the name of Azariah, son of Obed, who told him that he would be blessed so long as he doesn’t forsake God. He claims that Israel has been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without law for a long time, but that God was found when he was sought. There had been no peace, city fought against city, nation against, nation, etc. Asa’s hands must be strong, says Azariah, for his work will be rewarded (2 Chron. 15:7).

The major trouble with this passage is that no one seems to know what it’s supposed to refer to. The obvious answer is that it refers to the reigns of Rehoboam and Abijah, with the conflict Azariah mentions being the civil war between Judah and Israel. However, the Chronicler’s account is rather kind toward Abijah, so it seems unlikely that he would add a prophecy that seems to contradict his own account.

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

The dominant view seems to be that it’s a reference to the more chaotic time of Judges. But that was around 100 years prior to this prophecy (assuming that the Chronicler discounts Saul, as I’m sure he’d be wont to do), so it’s hard to see the relevance here. Azariah’s speech makes it seem as though Asa is to be a turning point, so it’s hard to see why he would be talking about pre-monarchic times.

In any case, the speech seems to have the desired effect, and Asa persecutes “undesirable” religious expression with renewed vigor. He destroys all the idols in Judah and Benjamin, plus those in the communities of Ephraim that he’d managed to conquer. He was also motivated to repair the altar that was in front of the vestibule of the Temple.

Finally, he deposed the queen mother, Maacah (called his mother here, in 2 Chron. 15:16, but his grandmother, or bears the same name, according to 2 Chron. 11:20 and 1 Kgs 15:2), cutting down and burning her Asherah at the brook of Kidron. This was, by the way, Josiah’s preferred idol disposal location, too, in 2 Kgs 23:4-14. Maacah’s deposition matches 1 Kgs 15:13.

During or after all of this, Asa gathered all his people together in the 3rd month of the 15th year of his reign. They made sacrifices of the spoils they had brought (by context, this would presumably be from the conflict with Zerah, which would have occurred 5 years prior, according to 2 Chron. 14:1). They confirmed the covenant, and decided that anyone who doesn’t seek God should be put to death, no matter who they may be.

Contrary to 2 Chron. 14:2-5, Asa was not able to rid Israel (presumably using the name to refer to Judah, the true Israel, as elsewhere) of all its high places. This is in keeping with 1 Kgs 15:14, where this was seen as great Asa’s only flaw. One possible explanation rests with the word “foreign” in 2 Chron. 14:3. The idea being that Asa was able to rid Judah of the shrines to foreign gods, but not the many local shrines of YHWH. In other words, we may have evidence of the faith’s evolution, and of the Chronicler’s anachronistic judgement.

Despite this one little failing, we are told that Asa was utterly blameless throughout his reign, though this will, as we shall soon see, prove false. He brought many votive gifts to the Temple, and for the 35 years under Asa, there was no more war (excluding the Ethiopians, I’m sure).

The Troublesome Baasha

Despite the claims of 2 Chron. 15:17, things soon change for Asa.

In Asa’s 36th year, King Baasha of Israel launched an attack on Judah. This presents us with a problem, since 1 Kgs 15:33 has Baasha’s reign ending in Asa’s 27th year, and 1 Kgs 16:8 has it ending in Asa’s 26th. This isn’t a contradiction, since it’s easy enough to be off by one when counting years, but it puts Asa’s 36th year right out of the running. James Bradford Pate proposes a few possible fudgings, but I think the most likely explanation is that there’s simply been an error somewhere. 1 Kgs 15 avoids the issue by omitting a date reference.

Baasha built Ramah to box Judah in, laying siege to the whole nation. Asa took silver and gold from the Temple and palace treasuries (despite being noted for putting money in to the Temple treasuries) to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into breaking his alliance with Baasha.

Benhadad is convinced, and he sends his armies against Israel instead of supporting Israel against Judah, conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelmaim, and all the store-cities of Naphtali. Baasha retreats, abandoning Ramah and leaving it open to scavenging from Asa, who took its stones and timber in his own building projects, this time in Geba and Mizpah.

The Chronicler adds a story about Hanani the seer, who approached Asa to condemn him for turning to Syria instead of God. Had God not helped Asa in the battle against the Ethioians (and, apparently, Lybians)? Because of Asa’s poor choice of allies, Judah will henceforth suffer wars.

Asa, blaming the messenger, threw Hanani in prison. According to the text, this was not the only cruelty he inflicted on his people. Such a rapid turnabout seems unlikely. It seems, rather, that the Chronicler didn’t care much about Asa’s cruelties so long as he trusted in God to manage his military affairs.

Conclusion

For the rest of Asa’s story, we are directed to the non-extant Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.

In the 39th year of his reign, Asa suffered from a disease in his feet. This corresponds to 1 Kgs 15:23, though in the Chronicler’s version, Asa sinned in this, too, by seeking out physicians rather than turning to God. I’m sure this passage gets its use in arguments in favour of faith healing which, I think, I needn’t say is rather troubling, even if consulting a physician at the time might well have been the worse idea (what with the state of ancient medicine).

Finally, Asa died in his 41st year, and was buried in a tomb he had hewn out for himself in the city of David. He was laid out on a bier that had been spiced and performed, and they lit a great fire in his honour. I found the amount of detail on the funerary arrangements rather interesting, given that they are so infrequent.

I see no explanation for the Chronicler’s contradiction of the 1 Kgs 15 account of Asa’s life (as well as 2 Chron. 15:17). I don’t understand why the Chronicler chose to save Abijah/Abijam’s reputation in 2 Chron. 13, and to tarnish Asa’s reputation here.

2 Kings 25: The Fall of the House of David

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I mentioned in the last chapter that the Chaldeans were the tribal group that had taken control of Babylon, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire – the empire that Judah is currently dancing with – was ruled by a Chaldean dynasty.

While at the time, I was making the argument that the mention of “Chaldeans” was meant to indicate a group separate from those directly under Babylonian control (in other words, not the state army). Here, however, “Chaldeans” is apparently used interchangeably with “Babylonians.” I will still be trying to use whichever term the text uses in that instance, just in case, but I’m not perceiving that a distinction is being made.

Zedekiah’s Rebellion

At the very end of the last chapter, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon. It’s unclear why he would have done this, particularly since he had been installed by Babylon in the first place, but the results were disastrous.

From this point onwards, the dates are given with absolute precision. No longer are we learning only the year of an event, but also the month and even the day.

So in the 10th day of the 10th month of the 9th year of Zedekiah’s reign, Babylon retaliated, besieging Jerusalem. The siege lasts about a year and a half before the famine in Jerusalem became unbearable.

In what appears to be a desperate bid to save himself, Zedekiah breaches his own wall and, with a bunch of soldiers, makes a run for it at night, heading for the Arabah. The venture fails, however, and the Chaldeans soon overtake the fleeing Hebrews. They manage to capture Zedekiah and bring him before Nebuchadnezzar.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850

As punishment, they make Zedekiah watch as they kill his sons, then put out his eyes. The last thing he ever saw was the murder of his children.

He was then bound and taken to Babylon.

The city now fallen, Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the bodyguard, Nebuzaradan, burned the city to the ground – including Solomon’s temple. The Chaldean soldiers even tore down the city’s walls. All the people remaining, regardless of their allegiances, were taken off into exile (except, we are told, for the very poorest, who are left behind to tend the farms).

The fall of Jerusalem occurs, we are told, in the 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. Unless I’ve missed something, the math adds up, as Nebuchadnezzar had already ruled 8 years by the time he installed Zedekiah as king of Judah (2 Kings 24:12), and Zedekiah ruled 11 years (2 Kings 24:18).

Presumably before setting the fires, the Chaldeans raid the temple for its metals – particularly bronze, silver, and gold. Anything too large to be carried off whole was broken down. It’s difficult to imagine how much gold was left after Nebuchadnezzar did the same thing in 2 Kings 24:13, but it seems that they were able to find something.

After razing the city, Nebuzaradan took the chief priest (Seraiah), second priest (Zephaniah), the three keepers of the temple’s threshold, the military commander, the commander’s secretary, the give men of the king’s council, and 60 other unspecified men. Be brought them to Nebuchadnezzar, who had them killed.

Tim Bulkeley points out that the description of the razing of Jerusalem isn’t nearly as awful as some of the other sieges we’ve read about. On the whole, it seems that Babylon was almost kind in their treatment of the Judahites. And yet, at the same time, the horror of the destruction was a much greater blow to the Jewish psyche. After all, Jerusalem was the seat of God’s power, and what did it say about God to have it destroyed? That, of course, is what the Hebrew people in exile had to sort out.

The Unfortunate Gaffer

The Babylonians have another go at installing a local man to govern Judah – this time as governor rather than as king. They choose Gedaliah, the son of Josiah’s advisor Ahikam (2 Kings 22:12). Though not of the royal dynasty, he would clearly have been well positioned to know what needed to be known about the nation’s governance, and would have all the right connections.

Apparently quite soon after, a number of men present themselves to Gedaliah at Mizpah (apparently a temporary replacement capitol following the destruction of Jerusalem) to swear their allegiance. Among them were: Jehoanan son of Kareah, Seraiah son of Tanhumeth, Jazaniah son of ‘the Maacathite’, and Ishmael son of Nethaniah. This last was, apparently, a member of the previously-royal Judahite dynasty.

When the men swear their allegiance, Gedaliah delivers a short speech in which he urges them not to fear the Chaldean occupation. So long as they serve Babylon, he says, everything will be fine!

Unfortunately for me, all was not fine. Just a few months later, Ishmael gathered together ten men and murdered Gedaliah, along with both Jewish and Chaldean people with him. After that, they flew to Egypt in fear of the Chaldeans.

It’s hard to imagine what Ishmael was hoping to achieve. Was he trying to restore his dynasty? Become king himself? Or was it simply an act of defiance?

The book ends with Jehoiachin, who had been in exile 37 years when Evil-merodach (who has one of the best names in the Bible so far) became king of Babylon. He “graciously freed” Jehoiachin (2 Kings 25:27), and treated him extremely well and with high honour – even going so far as seating him higher than all of the other kings (presumably excluding himself) in Babylon.

My study Bible explains that there may be a very good reason for concluding the book in this way: “The writer may have used this information to end hi sbook with a note of modest hope, as though to say (in spite of 24.9): the Davidic dynasty has not been snuffed out.”

 

1 Kings 15-16: A House Divided

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The following chapters take us into the first few decades after the deaths of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Important dates are given as references to the Xth year of the other half’s king’s reign – an interesting relational dating system that could only work in a divided monarchy. By necessity, this means that we skip around in the chronology a little. The story begins in Judah for Abijam and Asa, then moves up into Israel for Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab.

Abijam

Abijam came to power in the 18th year of Jeroboam’s reign, and ruled a total of three years. His mother was Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom, who seems to be identified by some with Absalom, making Maacah David’s granddaughter.

Of Abijam’s reign, we’re told only that he failed to live up to David’s greatness – though at least here, for once, the narrator admits that David’s greatness was slightly complicated by that whole Uriah business (1 Kgs 15:5). We also learn that hostilities continued between Israel and Judah during his reign, with the rather out-of-place verse: “Now there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life” (1 Kgs 15:6). It may be possible to explain away by seeing Rehoboam as a reference to his family rather than to the individual, but this seems a stretch. Given that the wording is very similar to 1 Kgs 14:30 and that the verse is not found here in the Septuagint, it seems likely that it’s inclusion here was in error.

No information is given about the circumstances of Abijam’s death, but he only ruled for three years.

Asa

Asa gets the best assessment of anyone in these two chapters. He is crowned king in the 20th year of Jeroboam and ruled for a rather impressive forty-one years. Weirdly, though he is described as Abijam’s son, his mother is also Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom. Either this is an extraordinary coincidence, terribly incestuous, or there’s an error somewhere – it could be that Maacah’s name is duplicated, or that Asa and Abijam were brothers.

The narrator’s principal definition of an awesome king is that Asa cracked down a bit on non-approved cultic practices. Namely, he put away the male cultic prostitutes (no word on the female ones), and removed his mother from her position as Queen Mother because she had commissioned an Asherah – which Asa had cut down and burned. He also brought votive gifts to the Temple, both his own and some from his father. His only failing was that he didn’t take down the high places.

During Asa’s reign, the king of Israel – Baasha, whom we’ll learn about shortly – built Ramah, barring the border between the two nations and apparently serving a defensive function. Given its proximity to Jerusalem (about 8km, or 4 miles), this may have been an aggressive structure as well, or at least perceived as such. In response, Asa took all the silver and gold from both Temple and palace treasuries, and brought it to King Benhadad of Syria. It seems that Benhadad had been supporting Baasha, but he was successfully bribed to switch sides – conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelbethmaacah, all of Chinneroth, and all of Naphtali.

Defeated, Baasha stopped building Ramah. It’s also implied that, as a consequence of this defeat, he dwelt in Tirzah – suggesting that perhaps he was building Ramah with the intention of moving Israel’s capitol there and had to retreat back to Tirzah, which we know from 1 Kgs 14:17 was the current capitol. Once Baasha had retreated, Asa ordered all of Judah (“none was exempt” – 1 Kgs 15:22) to carry away the stones and timber of Ramah, using them instead to build Geba in Benjamin and Mizpah. It seems that few lessons were learned regarding the dangers of conscription.

In his old age, Asa suffered from diseased feet, which my New Bible Commentary speculates may have been dropsy (p.340). After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Jehoshaphat.

Israel

Nadab

Back in Israel, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Nadab, in the second year of Asa’s reign. The narrator found him unworthy, and so, apparently, did others. He only managed to rule for two years before Baasha, the son of Ahijah of Issachar, revolted and killed Nadab at Gibbethon. It’s not spelled out, but since we are told that Gibbethon belonged to Philistia, it seems probable that Baasha took advantage of the battle to turn on his king.

Baasha

Baasha was crowned in the third year of Asa’s reign, and his first act as king was to slaughter all the remaining members of Jeroboam’s house – not an uncommon practice when trying to found a new dynasty. He ruled a total of twenty-four years, with Tirzah as his capitol. Of course, our narrator was no fan.

During Baasha’s reign, there was a new prophet: Jehu, son of Hanani. He was no fan of Baasha either. He prophesies that God is displeased that Baasha is no better than his predecessors and, as punishment, will see his house utterly destroyed.

Elah

In the 26th year of Asa, Elah inherited the crown of Israel from his father. Unfortunately, his reign was troubled from the start. While he was getting plastered, Zimri – the commander of half of Elah’s chariots – murdered him. It seems significant that Zimri commanded only half of the chariots – I’m not sure if this would have been common practice, or if this is meant to signify that there were already divisions happening.

Either way, Elah was deposed in the 27th year of Asa.

Zimri

While clearly a go-getter, Zimri failed to get all his ducks in a row before taking the crown through murder. After only seven days, during which he just barely had time to murder every male kin and friend of Baasha’s dynasty, he fell.

Elah’s troops had been encamped at Gibbethon, perhaps continuing the conflict that saw Nadab’s death. When they heard of Elah’s murder, they made their commander, Omri, king. Omri brought the army back to Tirzah and besieged the city. Clearly seeing that he wasn’t going to hold on to the power he’d only just taken, Zimri set the citadel of the king’s house on fire, with himself inside.

Just as a point of interest, the term used for the men associated with Baasha’s dynasty in 1 Kgs 16:11 in the King James Bible is “one that pisseth against a wall.” This is, apparently, how men are to be defined by people who clearly never met a woman who does a lot of hiking or camping.

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Omri

Despite having the support of the soldiers under his command, Omri’s transition was not particularly smooth. Half of Israel followed Tibni, son of Ginath. While Omri defeated Tibni, the fact that Zimri’s rise and fall occured in the 27th year of Asa yet Omri’s reign is not said to have begun until the 31st year of Asa, it seems that the conflict between the two men lasted four years.

We’re told that Omri reigned a total of twelve years, six of which were in Tirzah. Yet to make the numbers of work, four of those years would have been the years of civil war, giving him only two solid years in Tirzah. After that, he bought land from a man named Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on it the city of Samaria. Not only was this the new capitol of Israel, Israel itself soon came to be known as Samaria.

Despite the text’s assessment of Omri as evil, he seems to have been quite important. From Micah 6:16, it seems that he was known for instituting some kind of legal reform, though no details are preserved. Omri is also the first Hebrew king for which we have direct non-biblical evidence:

The Moabite Stone, which was discovered in 1868, tells of the conflict between Mesha, king of Moab, and Omri, who humbled Moab for many years but was eventually defeated (ANET, 321). The inscription is remarkable for the similarty it shows between the religion of Moab and that of Israel. Mesha acts at the behest of his god, Chemosh, just as the Israelites act at the behest of YHWH. Most remarkable is that Mesha boasts of having slaughtered every man, woman, and child in Nebo, “for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.” Omri’s son, Ahab, is mentioned in the Monolith Inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser as having contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers to an Aramean coalition that halted an Assyrian advance (ANET, 279). Assyrian records continued to refer to Israel as “the house of Omri” long after Omri’s descendants had ceased to rule. Omri and Ahab were kings to be reckoned with. There is much more evidence outside the Bible for their power and influence than was the case with Solomon. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137,138)

Ahab

In the 38th year of Asa, Omri was succeeded by his son, Ahab. Though described by the text as just the absolute worst, Ahab seems to have been able to maintain a bit of stability in the unstable nation of Israel, ruling for an impressive twenty-two years. He was married to a woman named Jezebel, whose name should be familiar to any cultural Christian. She was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidonia and, through her, Ahab came to serve Baal. Not only does he make an Asherah, he also builds a temple for Baal in Samaria. As in the case of his father, we have an independent attestation of Ahab’s existence.

Somewhat out of place in this narrative, we get a note about a man named Hiel of Bethel who rebuilt Jericho. We’re told that the foundation of the city came at the cost of his first-born son, Abiram, and that the gates were built at the cost of his youngest son, Segub. This is all, says the narrative, a fulfilment of Joshua’s prophecy, given in Joshua 6:29. The most charitable reading has the two boys either having their deaths attributed to the construction (as we saw Bathsheba’s first son’s death attributed to David’s sin in 2 Samuel 12), or perhaps both sons assisted in the construction and died accidentally. There’s no reason to assume that Joshua’s prophecy predicted a future event, as opposed to Joshua’s prophecy, written after the events, describing events that it full well knew would come later when Jericho was rebuilt.

A third possibility, and perhaps the likeliest, was that these were ritual killings, human sacrifices intended to bless the construction. These sorts of sacrifices (both human and animal) have been found in much of the world, and knowledge of them survived in folk mythology even longer (as we see in this German legend). The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying quotes a book by Nigel Davies:

In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981, p. 61)

1 Samuel 10: The making of a king

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1 Sam. 9 was supposedly from the Early Source, the one that still had good things to say about the monarchy. Yet, as I pointed out in that post, the chapter is easily read as a comedy with Saul as the punchline. Here, the first half (1 Sam. 10:1-16) is said to be a continuation of that source, before we switch for the latter portion of the narrative, which is from the Late Source. The first half of the chapter has a very different texture to it from 1 Sam. 9, though, and I have trouble seeing them as a single source (except for one little detail that I think you’ll spot when we get to it).

The chapter picks up on the morning after Saul and Samuel meet. Saul’s servant has been sent off, and Samuel wanted to teach Saul about God. Before doing this, however, he starts oiling up Saul’s head and kissing him. Only then does he finally tell Saul that God wants to make him king of Israel. Despite the late reveal, Saul doesn’t seem to protest the oiling much. Perhaps he thought Samuel was helping him to get rid of nits?

Interestingly, when the people asked for a king, they said that they specifically wanted someone who would lead them into battle (1 Sam. 8:20). Here, Samuel charges Saul with saving “them from the hand of their enemies round about” (1 Sam. 10:1). It seems that everyone is on the same page.

Next, Samuel gives Saul three signs that he will soon see:

  1. As he passes by Rachel’s tomb (near Bethlehem), he will meet two men who will tell him that the donkeys have been found and that his father is worried about him.
  2. At the oak of Tabor, he will meet three men who are heading toward the sanctuary at Bethel. One of them will be carrying three kids (an extremely impressive feat to anyone who has ever seen goats close up – he’ll likely be bald by the end of his journey), one will be carrying three loaves of bread, and the third will be carrying a skin of wine. They will give Saul two of their loaves of bread.
  3. When he arrives at Gibeath-elohim (where, we are told, there is a Philistine garrison), he will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place (some kind of altar or sanctuary) playing music and prophesying. At this time, “the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man” (1 Sam. 10:6).

When all these signs occur, Saul may “do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (1 Sam. 10:7).

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

The purpose of the signs isn’t exactly clear. It could be an acknowledgement that Saul may be struggling to believe that he could leave his house to look for some donkeys and come home the king of Israel. Perhaps these signs are meant to prove to him that God really has chosen him.

It could also be that the signs are meant to be seen symbolically. Just off the top of my head, it could be that #1 is meant to tie up the loose ends of his previous life, #2 is meant to show that he will have the support of the people (or something about taxes), and #3 will align him with God and bind together the office of holy man and king.

In closing, Samuel tells Saul that he will come before him at Gilgal at some unspecified future date, and they will make offerings. Then, Saul will have to wait seven days for further instructions.

The first two signs happen backstage, and we pick up the story again with Saul hanging out with the ecstatics at Gibeath-elohim. The people are amazed to see him prophesying (which, from the context, likely means something like speaking in tongues and was probably quite a spectacle). They can hardly believe that Saul, the guy who can’t even find his donkeys in the morning, is out there with holy men. This generates a new proverb: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 10:12), which must have been some sort of analogue to the modern “Does the pope shit in the woods?”

At some point in all of this, Saul meets his uncle and gives him the run-down re: the donkey situation. It’s cool, he says, because Samuel told him that they had been found. Notably, he specifically does not mention all the monarchy business, though we are not told why. It is also unclear why he is debriefing his uncle rather than his father. In fact, it’s an odd passage altogether.

The Lottery

One possible reason for Saul not telling his uncle about the monarchy business is that Samuel is about to conduct a lottery to select Israel’s king, and it might look rather bad if word got out that the thing was rigged.

So Samuel gathers the people together at Mizpah, because of course the people are gathered at Mizpah. Quoting God, he says that the people have rejected him [God] and demanded a king. This, as you can tell, signifies that we’ve officially switched to the Late Source, which isn’t too thrilled with this monarchy business.

To choose the king (or, more likely, to divine the person God has in mind), Samuel sets up a lottery. The tribe of Benjamin wins the tribe round, the Matrites win the family round, and Saul wins the individual round.

All is going well so far except, wait, where’s Saul?

The people can’t find him anywhere, so they finally ask God for help in finding the new king. He has “hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam. 10:22), says God. Classic Saul.

At this point, I imagine that the Israelites are probably having second thoughts about the whole monarchy business. Still, he is very tall, and his height impresses most of the people. That’s enough for them and they proclaim him king.

Samuel tells everyone the rights and duties of kingship, writes these in a now-unknown book, then sends everyone home.

The chapter ends by telling us that Saul has lots of supporters, but there are some who haven’t been totally swayed by his height and still doubt his abilities to save them. These people are described as “worthless fellows” and contrasted with the “men of valor” who support Saul (1 Sam. 10:26-27).

We saw something like this – though not quite so pronounced – in Judges, particularly with Gideon in Judges 6. It could be that Saul is described in such an unflattering light to highlight the idea that he was not chosen for his personal qualities. In other words, he did nothing to deserve his appointment to the kingship. Rather, his successes are all God’s.

Certainly, the mention of “the spirit of the Lord [coming] mightily upon [him]” (1 Sam. 10:6) connects him to the judges, many of whom had a similar experience using much the same words (in English, anyway). So I think it’s reasonable to use Judges to better understand what’s going on with Saul.

1 Samuel 7: Getting back in good graces

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We begin chapter 7 with another attack from the crappy chapter break monster! Taking up from the last chapter, the men of Kiriath-jearim (the Levites of 1 Sam. 6:15 have apparently disappeared) bring the ark to Abinadab. While the ark was in his hands, Abinadab consecrated his son, Eleazar (presumably not the same Eleazar who was high priest after Aaron) so that he could have charge of it.

It doesn’t seem that anyone considers either Abinadab or Eleazar to have been a high priest, yet it seems strange that they should have charge of the ark and not be so. Just as it’s strange that the ark should have sat in Philistine hands for seven months without anyone mounting a rescue, and no one seems to know what to do with it now that it’s back. It seems to me that perhaps the ark was a local cultic object, perhaps from the Shiloh region, and that the rest of the Israelites didn’t really care that much about it. At least at that time.

The ark remains in Kiriath-jearim for twenty years while the people do a lot of “lamenting” (1 Sam. 7:2), which, in context, likely means something like praying for help against the Philistines.

Sam’s Career

There are fifty-five chapters in the combined books of Samuel, and chapter 7 already brings us into the titular hero’s dotage.

The ark drops from the story, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Samuel misses it, or tries to get it back, or sees himself as Eli’s successor in its care, or even knows that it’s back from Philistia. Rather, we just see Samuel yelling at the people for having adopted Baals and Ashtaroth. If only they’d put them away, he says, God would save them from the Philistines. The people, without mention of complaint or hesitance, do so. According to my study Bible, this mention of foreign gods is likely a Deuteronomist addition. Certainly, the narrative flows perfectly well with 1 Sam. 7:3-4 removed.

He then gathers all (all!) the people at Mizpah. We’ve seen this location a few times before, mostly in Judges. It’s where Laban and Jacob swear an oath in Genesis 31:48-50. In Judges, it seems to have been quite strongly associated with mustering armies: It’s where the Israelites mustered against the Ammonites in Judges 10:17, and where the other tribes mustered against the Benjaminites in Judges 20. It is also associated with Jephthah in Judges 11. Now, it’s where Samuel prays over the people and has them perform a sort of cleansing ritual in which they confess to their sins.

360_ark_covenant_0215Once the people are purified, Samuel turns his attentions to Philistia. Or, rather, the Philistines find out that the Israelites are gathering and assume the (probably accurate) worst. The Israelites are afraid of the approaching Philistines, so they ask Samuel to continually pray for them while they fight. It’s a bit like Moses’s arm waving during the battle against the Amalekites in Exodus 17, except that Samuel makes a “whole burnt offering” (1 Sam. 7:9) – likely meaning that the whole animal is burned up, with no portion saved for human consumption – instead.

It works. When the Philistines advance, God “thundered with a mighty voice” (1 Sam. 7:11), confusing and routing them. Whether intentional or not, this story provides a contrast to the last battle against the Philistines. In both cases, it looks – at least to me – like the sacred is being used fetishistically, in the sense that some object is brought or ritual performed in the belief that it will cause God to grant victory. The only meaningful difference, it seems, is that Samuel is a Good Guy, whereas the last battle had no such leader-hero. Or perhaps there’s some theological nuance that I’m missing.

Having achieved his first victory against the Philistines, Samuel sets up a monument – a stone that he names Ebenezer (or “stone of help”). If that names sounds familiar, it’s because it’s where the Israelites mustered against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4 – the battle that preceded the one in which the ark was lost. Either we have two separate stories of battles against the Philistines in connection to Ebenezer (at least one of which confused the source of the name), or Samuel is being delightfully snarky.

In 1 Sam. 7:13-14, we are told that the Philistines are permanently subdued, and that all the cities they had taken are returned to the Israelites (including Ekron and Gath – two of the Philistine pentapolis). Not only that, but Samuel also somehow managed to bring peace between Israel and the Amorites.

Of course, there’s a problem with that; if Samuel did indeed achieve all of this, then Saul’s career (coming up shortly) makes no sense. So my New Bible Commentary proposes a different reading, arguing that these verses are a summary of Samuel’s entire career, “not just the part of it that preceded Saul’s becoming king” (p.290). In other words, this chapter may be crediting Samuel with what will later be credited to the monarchy. It may be evidence of that ‘judge vs. monarch’ ideological conflict I mentioned earlier.

Closing up, we’re told that Samuel judged in a circuit, moving between Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, and his home in Ramah (building an altar in this last location, a detail that evidently made it passed the editors). I checked out these locations on my study Bible map and they seem to be in a fairly small geographical region. Much smaller than would be expected from a prophet known to all of Israel (1 Sam. 3:20).

Judges 20-21: The punishment and redemption of Benjamin

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Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, reminds me that, way back in Genesis, we learned something about how Benjamin would come to be viewed. On his deathbed, Jacob “blessed” each of his sons, though his blessings seemed more to foretell the perceived character of their descendent tribes. Of Benjamin, he said:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf
In the morning devouring the prey
And at evening dividing the plunder. (Genesis 49:27)

All the Israelites responded to the body parts they received in the mail. From Dan (far north) to Beersheba (far south), even Gilead on the eastern shore of the Jordan, they all gathered at Mizpah. We don’t seem to know quite where that is, but somewhere close to Jerusalem, which would put it in or near Benjaminite territory.

They ask the Levite to explain what happened, and the Levite answers:

I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about me by night; they meant to kill me, and they ravished my concubine, and she is dead. (Judges 20:4-5)

All true, but isn’t it interesting that he leaves out the part where where he threw her out to the mob and closed the door behind her?

When they hear of what happened, the Israelites vow not to return to their homes until they Benjamin is defeated. They will go up against Gibeah while ten men out of ever hundred (selected by lottery) keep the army provisioned.

The Battle

While the Israelites are gathered presumably in siege, they also sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin to ask, “What wickedness is this that has taken place among you?” (Judges 20:12), and to ask them to give up the criminal Gibeah. Unfortunately, the Benjaminites decide to stand with Gibeah, and they march out to face the other Israelites.

Altogether, Israel came with 400,000 soldiers, while Benjamin managed 26,000 in addition to the 700 soldiers of Gibeah. Among the Benjaminites were 700 southpaws who were extremely good with a sling (I do not know what left-handedness has to do with sling-throwing, but this is apparently important).

Echoing Judges 1:1-2, the people ask God which tribe should go up against Benjamin first, and God replies, “Judah shall go up first” (Judges 20:18). This is apparently quickly forgotten, because the next day it is just generic “Isrealites” who go out to battle.

They also lose the day. The Benjaminites slaughter 22,000 Israelites.

The Israelites figure that went so well that they would repeat it on the second day, and they “again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day” (Judges 20:22). Courage they might have, but their feelings about going against fellow Israelites seem mixed. They begin to weep and they ask of God “Shall we again draw near to battle against our brethren the Benjaminites?” (Judges 20:23). God stands firm, they must go.

Perhaps it was God’s will, or perhaps it was because they did not modify their terrible battle strategy, but 18,000 Israelite soldiers are killed on the second day.

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Once again, they weep. Both times they weep and call on God, they do it at Bethel. Bethel, by the way, seems to have featured rather important in the stories of the patriarchs. It is where Abram/Abraham builds an altar in Gen. 12:8, and it is where Jacob had a prophetic dream (and then built an altar of sorts) in Gen. 28:18:19. According to my study Bible, it was “later one of the two principal sanctuaries of the northern kingdom” (p.321). And now, we’re told that it is where the ark of the covenant is being kept, still ministered by an apparently extremely old Phinehas (Judges 20:28).

Just in case you were wondering why the Israelites were leaving their post to go over to Bethel every time they started getting teary-eyed.

The people seem rather broken up, and they ask God once again if they really have to go up against Benjamin. God says yes, but reassures them that, on the third day, they will win.

The third day is a bit more complicated and seems to weave together two different versions of events. But the essential gist is that they pretend to go out the same as before, but secretly plant a few people in ambush around Gibeah. When the Benjaminites go after them, the Israelites pretend to flee, drawing them away from the city. With the soldiers too far to help, 10,000 Israelite soldiers took Gibeah behind them, killing everyone.

When the fleeing Israelites see the signal from the ambushers – smoke rising from the burning Gibeah – they turn around and face the Benjaminites. 18,000 Benjaminites were killed right away, with another 7,000 killed while trying to flee.

Only 600 Benjaminite soldiers were left, hiding for four months at the rock of Rimmon while the Israelites went around slaughtering every single Benjaminite they could find.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Joshua used the same strategy in Josh. 8 after his initial attack on Ai failed.

The Tribal Preservation Society

At this point, all the Benjaminites are dead save for the 600 men hiding in Rimmon. Unfortunately for the tribe’s survival, the Israelites have vowed never to allow any of their daughters to marry a Benjaminite (Judges 21:1).

You can see how this might be an issue.

So the Israelites go to Bethel and start weeping again, this time building an altar and making offerings (in Judges 21:4, God is apparently cool with this). They are very concerned that, without any lady-folk, the tribe of Benjamin will die out.

Their first strategy is to find any Israelites who might not have made the vow. Helpfully, they also made a vow to kill anyone who did not respond to the mustering call at Mizpah (Judges 21:5).

They settle on Jabeshgilead, who had failed to answer the call. So they sent 12,000 men to slaughter all its inhabitants, including the women and child, sparing only 400 young virgins.

They then send word to the surviving Benjaminites letting them know that it’s all over and that they are out of danger and, hey, look, we got ladies for you!

And Creationists say that the “survival of the fittest” concept of evolution is cold…

But that’s only 400 girls and there are 600 surviving Benjaminites. Unwilling to give polyandry a try, this apparently poses a problem.

So they come up with a totally awesome solution that is definitely not rape-y at all! They tell the Benjaminites that they can go up to Shiloh during a yearly feast to God, set up an ambush in the vineyards, and kidnap any women who come out to dance the festival dances. This is a “solution” because it skirts around the vow not to “give” the Benjaminites any wives (see, because they weren’t given, they were taken! Har har, very clever).

And if this story sounds familiar, you’re probably a mythology buff. When the first Romans wanted wives for themselves, they abducted women from neighbouring groups during a festival.

God is apparently cool with just feeding women into the hands of Benjaminite rapists, because there’s no punishment for anyone – from the Levite to the Israelite nation – who does it. Even so, the book closes with a reminder that, “in those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Old Gods

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In Irish mythological history, the Tuatha Dé Danann are described as a tribe of people with certain supernatural powers. It is believed that, prior to Christian contact, the Tuatha Dé were actually gods, but they were demoted to historical people, predecessors, when the theological climate of Ireland changed.

The story of Jephthah and his daughter reminded me, in a way, of the Tuatha Dé – in that I saw in them some vestiges of gods made human, perhaps as the Israelites moved toward monotheism and the area around Mizpah was assimilated.

It starts with Jephthah being a son of Gilead. This isn’t presented as some nationalist descriptor, in the sense that a U.S. citizen might be described as a “son of America.” Rather, it seems that he is seen as an actual literal son. It’s not uncommon in polytheistic tribal societies personify the tribe as a whole as a single figure or god. Perhaps there was originally a cult of Gilead in the region, of whom Jephthah was a son and lesser god.

Jephthah's Sacrifice, Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Jephthah’s Sacrifice, Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

We see this in Genesis where nearly all of the characters appear to be tribal archetypes, and the twelve tribes of Israel are shown to be actual, literal, brothers. I think that there is evidence to suggest to that Judges may be sourced from an older tradition where this personification was still practised, namely the slip in Judges 1:3 where Judah is, for a few sentences, a single character.

There is also often a process of borrowing and trading in religion, where stories might be, over time, attributed to new gods as they spread from place to place. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Jephthah’s refusal to help the Gileadites against the Ammonites without a promise that, if successful, he would be made their leader reminds me of Marduk’s own similar deal when asked to defeat Tiamat, told in the Enuma Elish. Parallels between Genesis and the Enuma Elish have been fairly thoroughly discussed, so I don’t think it’s taking too much of a liberty to say that, at the very least, there was a good deal of sharing between the two cultures.

Then there is Jephthah’s daughter. It seems that Jephthah’s story was included in Judges to explain the origins of a festival in which the women of Israel would spend four days in mourning over his daughter – both her life and, tellingly, her virginity. The tragedy of the story appears to be that she will not bear children – not that she is barren, but that she has not been “ploughed.”

This makes sense if, as J.R. Porter argues, her festival “marked the death of the spirit of fertility during the dry season” (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 69). The fact that she is a virgin, rather than barren, leaves open the possibility of fertility and future pregnancy.

In this sense, Jephthah’s daughter might be a Persephone-like character. Unlike Jephthah’s daughter, Persephone is kidnapped by death (Hades), leading to her mother, Demeter – a harvest goddess – to stop nurturing the land, bringing winter. Through an elaborate story, a deal is eventually struck allowing Persephone to return home for some parts of the year (Spring and Summer) so long as she returns to the Underworld the rest of the year (Autumn and Winter).

In this case, it is her parent himself who sends her to death, though the motif of honouring a vow/deal is still present.

I want to make clear that this is pure on-the-fly conjecture on my part, but I find it interesting to think that Jephthah’s story may have originally been a regional mythic cycle in which a seasonal, civilizing deity conquers the forces of evil but, in exchange, must give up fertility (as his only child, Jephthah’s daughter is the vehicle for Jephthah’s family line’s continuance), bringing in the lean months of winter.

As the cult of YHWH spread and, over time, became monotheistic, local deities were preserved as historical heroes, Jephthah and his daughter among them.

Judges 10-12: Of bastards, bandits, and child sacrifice

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Abimelech is never, as far as I can tell, explicitly called a judge. He is included in the book of Judges, but his narrative could have been intended as a follow-up to Gideon’s story. Here, Judges 10 begins: “After Abimelech there arose to deliver Israel […]” (Judges 10:1). This phrasing is a little ambiguous. Does it mean that the sentence will finish by naming the judge who follows the judge Abimelech, or does it mean that Israel needed saving after Abimelech was through with it?

It’s important because our interpretation informs our idea of what it means to be a judge – is the important point that the individual be a leader appointed by God, or merely a leader?

Following Abimelech, we hear of two judges, called “minor” because they lack the stories of the main judges named in the book:

  1. Tola, son of Puah son of Dodo. Though of Issachar, he lived in Ephraim’s territory. He was judge for 23 years.
  2. Jair of Gilead was judge for 22 years. He had thirty sons who rode thirty asses (*gigglesnort*) and had thirty cities, called Havvothjair.

This isn’t actually our first mention of our friend Jair – in Numbers 32:41, Jair – there listed as a son of Manasseh – attacked and took the villages of Ham, calling them Havvothjair.

Setting the stage

Once again, the people fall into evil, “serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 10:6), as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. As punishment, God sells them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites for 18 years, except they only oppressed the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. But the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. The narrative is a little confused/confusing.

Whatever God did, it was bad and it involved the Ammonites (and maybe the Philistines?). The people repent and beg God for help.

God, clearly claiming the moral high ground, gives an “I told you so” speech and tells them to go cry to the other gods since they seem to love them so much.

Rags to riches

Meanwhile, we learn about Jephthah. His parentage is a little confused – he is the “son of a harlot” (Judges 11:2), but his father appears to be Gilead himself.

As in Judges 1, it seems that the tribe is appearing in a personified form, here capable of having sons. Yet I’m having trouble finding any information on Gilead as a tribal entity. A quick google search is only telling me that it’s a region – not a tribe. Yet in Judges, it seems that it is used instead of Gad. This is clearly something that I will have to look into more.

Father issues aside, Jephthah, as a bastard, is cast out from his home when his ‘natural born’ brothers reach adulthood. Denied a share of his father’s inheritance, he turns to a life of crime – becoming some sort of bandit king in Tob.

Though the Ammonites make war against Israel (Judges 11:4), only Gilead seems particularly affected. Once again, we see what appears to be a local story clumsily edited to appear national.

So the elders of Gilead come to Jephthah, because for some reason he is the only person capable of defeating the Ammonites. Jephthah jumps at the change to gloat now that his brothers have come grovelling.

It’s a little unclear whose idea it is, but somehow everyone agrees that Jephthah will come to fight the Ammonites and, when he wins, he will become the leader of Gilead (Judges 11:8-10).

With that, he ties on his bandanna and moves out.

Confronting the Ammonites

Interestingly, Jephthah doesn’t just charge into battle as other judges have done. Rather, he first tries talking to the Ammonites, to understand why they are being such meanies. It reminds me of Joshua 22, where the altar-builders are asked why they’ve built the altar and given the chance to explain.

The Ammonites claim that the Israelites, on coming out of Egypt, took their land. Their campaign, then, is merely to reclaim the lands that had previously been theirs. They ask that Jephthah hand it over peaceably.

Jephthah denies their complaint, arguing that Israel hasn’t taken land from either the Moabites or the Ammonites (which would be in keeping with Deut. 2:19, 37). Rather, he explains, they asked for passage through Edom and Moab, were denied, so they went around. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, which means that they can’t have touched the Moabites. The Israelites then sent word to King Sihon of the Amorites in Heshbon asking for passage. Rather than simply refusing, the Amorites attacked, Israel won, and they took possession of Amorite lands. It is this land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, that they took – Amorite land, not Ammonite.

If Jephthah’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because we saw something similar in Numbers 20-22. But not all of those chapters are quoted. In fact, if we subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, it seems that the authors of Jephthah had access to only one of the sources that went into Numbers 20-22.

Abbie has a discussion of the sources used up on Better Than Esdras (she even has a chart!).

Jephthah continues: The Israelites own the land that they are on because they were taken in battle and because God says so (Judges 11:23). “Will you not posses what Chemosh your god gives you to posses?” (Judges 11:24), he asks. Perhaps the question means “what would you do in our place? Wouldn’t you hold on to land given to you by your god?” Though I have also seen Jephthah’s argument interpreted to mean that they should go inhabit the land that their god is strong enough to give them rather than bothering the Israelites (in other words, make it a battle between gods rather than between people).

Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say because, according to my study Bible, “Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites, whose chief god was called Milcom (or Molech)” (p.310).

Besides, continues Jephthah, do the Ammonites think themselves better than Balak son of Zippor (who, here, is either the king of Moab or the son of a king, though I don’t believe that any mention was made of this in Balak’s story in Numbers 22-24). Balak didn’t go to war against Israel, so why do the Ammorites think that they have the right to?

Jephthah’s final argument is that Israel has now been living in the area for three hundred years, so why have the Ammorites waited so long to lay claim to it? So much time has passed that they can now be considered aggressors, not defenders. I found this argument a little shocking given the relationship between modern Israel and Palestine, and I wonder how this passage is received by those involved in that conflict.

The Ammorites are having nothing of Jephthah’s arguments. So at this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), prompting him to go on the attack.

Predictably, he fights the Ammonites and wins “with a very great slaughter” (Judges 11:33).

Jephthah’s daughter

When he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah vows that if he is successful in his campaign, he will offer up as a sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house to green him when he returns (Judges 11:30-31).

Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

When he returns, the first person he sees is his daughter – an only child – who emerges dancing with a timbrel to greet him. Jephthah, in his grief, rends his clothes. His daughter reassures him, insisting that he must fulfil his vow. Only, she asks for two months in which to wander the mountains with her companions and bewail her virginity.

At the end of the two months, she returns and Jephthah fulfils his vow. It is in her honour that, says the text, “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:40).

In reading about this chapter, I’ve come across the argument that this story was intended to serve as a warning against making rash vows. However, he makes his vow after he is entered by the Spirit of the Lord.

As Collins puts it:

While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wrong either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded with victory) or in fulfilling it. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

It seems to me that the story serves simply to explain the origins of a particular holiday – the four days a year that women in Israel honour Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity (bemoaned because, as a virgin, she has had no children and therefore her death marks the end of Jephthah’s line).

The story also seems to take for granted that human sacrifice is a thing that is done, despite later condemnations of the practice. Abraham and Isaac’s story suggests the same, though in that story the human sacrifice is made unnecessary by replacing the victim with an animal.

That is, of course, if sacrifice is really what is meant here. There are some who argue that the “sacrifice” was that Jephthah’s daughter would be consecrated as a nun, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for virginal/celibate female monastic orders in ancient Palestine. Tim Bulkeley provides an explanation of this argument. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch motivated by a desire to bring this story in line with later theology.

Ephraim at it again

As in Gideon’s story in Judges 8:1, Ephraim is angry that Jephthah fought the Ammonites without them. Unlike Gideon, who had simply attacked, Jephthah claims that he did actually ask for help, but that the Ephraimites had refused to come to Gilead’s aid while they were being harassed. It is because Ephraim hadn’t protected Gilead that Jephthah had had to take care of business himself.

That’s the first we’re hearing of this, of course. Perhaps in the first the Ephraimites are hearing of it too! I suspect that the editor of Jephthah’s story added this detail to justify his later actions.

Because, unlike Gideon who mollified Ephraim, Jephthah just goes ahead and attacks them.

During the attack, the Gileadites guard all the fords on the Jordan, preventing the Ephraimites from escaping. Anyone who attempted to cross the ford would be questioned, asked if they were Ephraimites. If they said no, they were then asked to prove it by saying “Shibboleth” (or “ear of grain”). Since the Ephraimites apparently speak a different dialect, they are unable to pronounce the ‘sh-‘ and instead say “Sibboleth,” betraying their identity. It’s quite a little bit of linguistic detail!

All told, the Gileadites kill 42,000 Ephraimites – or, as Victor Matthews argues, they kill “forty-two eleph of the enemies. Though most translations render this as forty-two “thousand,” an eleph is more likely a designation for a military unit” (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59). Either way, quite a high number.

A few more minor judges

Jephthah rules for six years before he dies. He is followed by three more minor judges:

  1. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who is said to have had thirty sons and thirty daughters, all of whom he married to people outside of his own clan. He was judge for seven years.
  2. Elon the Zebulunite was judge for ten years.
  3. Abdon, the son of Hillel the Pirathonite, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who, altogether, rode on seventy asses. He was judge for 8 years.

I don’t know what the significance is of the asses in the record of Abdon and Jair. Does anyone have any ideas?

Joshua 11-12: The king(s) in the north

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Having heard of, but not learned from, the Israelite conquests in the south, Jabin king of Hazor decides to form a new defensive pact with Jobab king of Madon and the unnamed kings of Shimron, Achshaph, the northern hill country, the Arabah south of Chinneroth, the lowlands, and Naphothdor. Altogether, he calls in Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Hivites, and they all encamp “at the waters of Merom, to fight with Israel” (Josh. 11:5).

God gives Joshua a quick pep talk, reminding him not to be afraid, oh and also to make sure that he hamstrings all the enemies’ horses and burns their chariots. Joshua and his army barely have to lift a finger until after the battle is over because God rushes ahead and smites all their enemies, scattering whatever survivors remain. Then Joshua and his men spring into action, hamstringing all the horses (seriously?) and burning all the chariots.

These seem like strange details to add, especially given how many times they are repeated. I still don’t understand why the horses needed to be hamstrung rather than, say, simply killed, but Victor Matthews provides some possible explanation for the burning of the chariots:

Israelites also used bronze weapons, but their lack of metallurgical knowledge, and the Philistine monopoly over the tin trade, probably forced many of their soldiers to use slings and farm implements to defend themselves. Some iron weapons were undoubtedly captured during raids by Israelite forces, but without the knowledge of metallurgy to repair and fabricate new weapons out of scrap metal, they would have become useless eventually. This may explain why the forces under Joshua chose to burn the chariots of the northern coalition of Canaanite kings rather than use them themselves (Josh 11:9). The Israelites could not repair the chariots, and they did not want to leave them behind for Canaanites to use against them in the future. Also, the chariots would have been of little use to Israelite bands operating out of the rugged hill country. (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59-60)

On to Hazor

Having removed the feet of the king of Hazor (get it? defeated? de-feeted? Oh, I slay me!), Joshua turns his sword toward the city itself – killing all its inhabitants and burning it down to the ground.

On Hazor, my study Bible indicates that it “was one of the largest cities of Galilee. Excavations have impressively demonstrated its importance in antiquity and confirmed the fact that it was captured at about the time indicated in this narrative” (p.277).

On the subject, Collins writes:

Similar results were obtained at Jericho and Ai, the two showpieces of the conquest in Joshua. Neither was a walled city in the Late Bronze period. Of nearly twenty [page break] identifiable sites that were captured in the biblical account, only two, Hazor and Bethel, have yielded archaeological evidence of destruction at the appropriate period. Ironically, Hazor is said to be still in Canaanite hands in Judges 4-5. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.96-98)

With Hazor out of the way, they move on to a bunch of other cities. These, however, they do not burn  to the ground. Rather, they kill all the people but keep the stuff for themselves. As if to fudge over that this is a clear violation of the rules governing holy war laid out in Deut. 20, the narrator tells us that in doing this, Joshua “left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:15).

Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin, c.1625

Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin, c.1625

I also noticed that the narrative construction seems to flip-flop between this God>Moses>Joshua chain and the Moses>Joshua chain that we get, for example, in Josh. 11:12 (“[…] as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded”).

We are told that God “hardened” the hearts of the enemies so that they should seek to fight rather than make peace as Gibeon did, but I have to wonder, whose hearts did he harden, really? According to God’s instructions to the Israelites, they are forbidden from making peace, and have done so only when tricked into it. The consistency of the natives’ hearts seems somewhat irrelevant, given that God has already commanded that they all be slaughtered.

As a final note, we are told that Joshua also managed to kill most of the Anakim (except those in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod), fulfilling the promise made in Deut. 9:3. If you’ll remember, the Anakim were first met by the Israelite scouting party way back in Numbers 13.

That done, Joshua was finished “and the land had rest from war” (Josh. 11:23). With that, I am given to understand that the narrative portion of Joshua is essentially over. Booo!

Summaries

According to Collins, the Deuteronomistic Histories favour certain narrative devices, such as speeches and narrative summaries (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95). We’ve seen this, of course, in Deuteronomy. Most notably, all of Deut. 1-3 is a recap of Moses’s story.

The summary begins with Moses’s exploits on the eastern side of the Jordan, describing his defeating of King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan, because we cannot ever be allowed to forget that Moses beat these two guys. Like, ever. These lands, we are told once again, were given over to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh.

The rest of the chapter covers Joshua’s exploits, who are helpfully listed:

  1. The king of Jericho
  2. The king of Ai (which we are told once more is next to Bethel)
  3. The king of Jerusalem
  4. The king of Hebron
  5. The king of Jarmuth
  6. The king of Lachish
  7. The king of Eglon
  8. The king of Gezer
  9. The king of Debir
  10. The king of Geder
  11. The king of Hormah
  12. The king of Arad
  13. The king of Libnah
  14. The king of Adullam
  15. The king of Makkedah
  16. The king of Bethel
  17. The king of Tappuah
  18. The king of Hepher
  19. The king of Aphek
  20. The king of Lasharon
  21. The king of Madon
  22. The king of Hazor
  23. The king of Shimron-meron
  24. The king of Achshaph
  25. The king of Taanach
  26. The king of Megiddo
  27. The king of Kedesh
  28. The king of Jokneam in Carmel
  29. The king of Dor in Naphath-dor
  30. The king of Goiim in Galilee (which my study Bible tells me is Gilgal’s Greek name)
  31. The king of Tirzah